This is a story told in ripples and eddies deep below old hills . . .
The Pilgrim heard this tale up in the Northern Lands and told it as rain slicked windows and puddles made lakes. The listeners asked for a longer story to pass a stormy night and this what they heard:
‘I’m off this road,’ Moss Rose said at the milestone. Her elder sisters stared at her, disbelief stretching their eyes wide.
‘What road?’ asked Briar Rose, the oldest and most beautiful. ‘I see nowhere anybody in their right mind would want but there!’ She pointed along a street paved over the moors to a great stone city. ‘That’s where I will find my destiny – or I’ll make it.’
Guelder Rose, the middle sister, swayed her head in slow pity. ‘Poor deluded creature. There is no road the way tha’s seeking. Come wi me along the stone trod back home – it’s tried and tested – we’ll be safe together.’
Moss Rose thanked her sisters kindly. ‘I know where I’m bound,’ she said. ‘I wish the two of thee well.’ They had no choice but to let her go her own way.
When her sisters had left, Moss Rose searched the sheep-cropped turf for a clue. By a clump of Bird’s-eye Primrose, she found the first sign. A piece of Fog Grass nodded with a neat knot tied in its stem. She fell to her knees.
‘Thanks for yon waymark,’ she whispered to the harsh and stony earth.’Send me more.’
By an arc of harebells hanging from a mossy drystone wall, she found the next. Meadow Foxtail made into a reefknot, with its felted head pointing downhill into a steep gill.Tiny loops and braids and splices of grass led Moss Rose down among the rock faces.Drippings from wet ferns and the warbling of cold water among pebbles rose to greet her.
She picked her way with care – and wonder. She wrapped her shawl tight, pinned it in place out of respect and to keep out the scented damp. This was a place of fear and marvels. A place that none of her kin had ever dared come near. And here she was under its cloak of green shadows.
A small beck tumbled from a cave. No more knotted grass showed her the way – only a last plaiting of reeds that led into the dark. Moss Rose took off her boots and stockings. Put them tidy. The sleek water numbed her tired feet with its chilly fingers, rippling over her toes in running glass. She placed her palms on the water-smoothed walls of the cave and made a bow. Then she entered, head lowered.
She waited for the count of nine while her eyes to become their twilight selves. Facets glistened and winked ahead, inviting her further in. Hushed plinks sounded far off. Dangling quills let small drops fall in shallow pools. Flute-voiced airs through limestone passages sung to her.
Moss Rose followed that music deep inside the fairy hills. Her shawl pin tinked against a rock icicle. Fine as straw, scores hung from fissures in the low ceilings, striped and resonant.
One little tap she gave – and an echo answered. Again – and a reply. Long slim cylinders and little titches, wide pipes and weeping tubes, they each gonged or tinkled or rang. And the hidden folk of the caverns sent the rhythms back. Moss Rose felt her cheeks bloom in the murk with effort and joy.
At length, she grew tired and hungry. Her arms ached and sought out a pool to calm their aching. Sly green light sidled down through chinks and landed on its still surface. A blissful face looked up at her, crowned with a constellation of lustrous stone.
She plunged her arms in and took the fragile blessing in her weary hands. In gratitude she left her shawl. You can see it pinned there still, streaked with hues of peat and fern roots.
Humming the music newly learned, she followed the beck back to the wide outdoors. Her boots stood green with mould and overgrown where she had left them. No trace of stockings remained. Folk stared as she walked home. Said nought.
‘Where are my sisters?’ she asked.
‘Briar Rose is the Chief Artificer of the Royal Automata,’ she was told,’ and Guelder Rose is on yon hill.’
She found her middle sister wed, content and plump with a bairn due. ‘We reckoned the farishes had thee,’ Guelder Rose said. ‘I’m glad tha’s back.’
Then Moss Rose made herself a home backed into the living rock. She got a name for a healer. Folk gathered to listen to the music she collected from the caves. It made them sad; welling up like the curlew’s song above the moors, but still they came back. And afterwards, their faces were smoothed out like waterworn rock and their damp eyes held the stillness of hidden pools.